‘Pornwall’: Digitally blindfolding web access to Pornography in the UK through automatic filtering to help protect young people.   no comments

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It goes without saying that pornography is open for academic debate from a significant number of different stances. Psychology, Sociology, Gender Rights, Politics, Equality, Misogyny, Criminology. The list goes on, the standpoints go even further. The impact of its usage has been debated extensively, sometimes without a clear conclusion. It raises interesting notions: does access to hardcore adult material promote inappropriate expectations in relationships? Is it degrading? Should service providers, such as Netflix and Microsoft, be allowed to provide streaming access to such sites through their dashboard? What does the scope and span of different types and forms say about our society as a whole? How do we define sexual content on the web and what percentage of its totality does it occupy?

The last notion intrigued me sufficiently to look it up. The main direction of reference denotes Phillip Stark’s 2006 study at the University of Berkley into the matter as a cited point of consideration. The findings suggested that 1.1% of the entire web was made up of pornography, based on an analysis of index referencing by Google and Microsoft. Of course, the web was a very different place 7 years ago. If you were to believe Avenue Q, feel free to conduct your own enquiry into their songs on the matter through Youtube, its all the web is used for these days. A more recent study, outlined by Forbes when the .XXX domain launched in 2011, by Ogas and Gaddam two researchers on the topic, asserted that in 2010 4% of the most popular (those most trafficked) websites were sexually themed. Further to this, from July 2009 to July 2010, approximately 13% of web searches were for erotic content. [Ogas et.al, 2011, stated in Forbes: ‘How much of the Internet is actually for Porn?’, http://www.forbes.com/sites/julieruvolo/2011/09/07/how-much-of-the-internet-is-actually-for-porn/].

The article raised some interesting further notions that I might come back and consider, but most notably it raised a link to my focus topic: the current decision by the government to create what could be affectionally termed a ‘pornwall’, a united approach by the UK ISP industry to automatically filter out materials of an adult nature and content. The justification for this was a morally sound one- to prevent young people, in particular young children, from accessing pornographic material or adult content either through deliberate effort, or unintentional consequence. It is an easy scenario to envisage where a child, studying tourism as part of their Geography curriculum programme of study which is covered in both the Primary and Secondary programmes of study, investigates Amsterdam because they really like the paintings of Van Gogh and finds instead a range of adult material.

The concept has intrigued me since David Cameron spoke in July 2013 on Radio 2, answering questions from a variety of irate callers who objected to both loss of freedom and practicality of the proposal. Especially as it was to be applied to all new broadband subscribers, not those pre-existing. His outline at this point was almost entirely pornographically focused, as he had yet to assert the broader implications of filtering other topics, such as anorexia, terrorism and esoteric material. These three could be open to debate- there is a plausible argument that these topics shouldn’t be automatically filtered, especially if some are educative. After all, the Bible is esoteric. [http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/29/uk-internet-filter-block-more-than-porn_n_3670771.html]

It also prompted the first of my two discipline enquiries, albeit in a round about way- the technical Computer Science of the web. I was left thinking could such ‘debatable’ topics be automatically filtered or are they distinguishable? How in fact do such filters work? Actually what is a filter? In fact, come to mention it, how does searching for websites actually work? Would the entire web collapse if we start hacking out parts of it and preventing people from gaining access instantly? Would this be user-focused or ISP focused? A point strongly argued in defence of this ‘pornwall’ was that it helped to reduce illegal pornography. However, can such filters actually detect downloads through file sharing services or peer to peer networks? I don’t have any understanding beyond the basis that such services exist- but I’d wager probably not if you change the file name?

The difference on that last question, I feel, is quite important. I’ve known my fathers password to the computer since I was old enough to use a computer. Having about as much knowledge of computers as I do aerodynamics or quantum theory, it didn’t take a genius to click on the password hint button on the windows log in page, which promptly asked me ‘What is your mothers name?’. Fairly certain I knew that. If it were to be this simple today, what would be the point? It goes without saying that the average young person these days is probably a little bit quicker off the mark than I was on Windows 95. Especially, as noted by Ofcom, there still exists an existing situation where 60% of parents don’t have any of their own user-based filters in place. [Hawkes, 2013, citing Ofcom 2013 study, noted in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/internet/10354088/Nearly-60-per-cent-of-parents-have-no-filters-in-place-to-protect-their-kids-on-the-internet.html].

Having worked in an environment where I have seen, first hand, the severe impact it can have on young people my stance on it has always been split between professional attitude and personal freedoms. In fact, such reasoning led me to a point that wasn’t focused upon in the interview; it argued any step that protects young people, no matter how realistically applicable, is worthwhile. I agree, in principle, but first hand experience in dealing with such an issue made me associate this notion to a blindfold. To elaborate if 100% of filters were in place, consistently, with no breaks in the chain, a universal ‘pornwall’ would create a ‘digital blindfold’ that meant no young people would ever access adult material unintentionally. The problem with such a metaphor is that such a blindfold could slipped off relatively easily, just like in real life, especially if there was a notion of intention on the young persons part and shared just as easily without using a home computer. To an extent, this balance of debate linked to my second field of study, Philosophy and Ethics. This in itself raises a number of questions I hope to explore in relation to the topic, such as moral responsibility, ethics of decision making in politics as well as personal freedoms, entitlements and rights. Whilst Philosophy might have been better paired with a subject such as Psychology on this topic, I’m intrigued as to the ways in which the two can be inter-related. Can parallels be drawn?

A stance I’ve recently considered in this regard is whether it is right to make such a decision on behalf of the society, then as an individual have a consequential result of being monitored opting-out. Will this paint you more likely as a potential sexual deviant? Can it be monitored? Should it? Both disciplines could, feasibly, lend considerations to each other in this regard and possibly others.

Written by Michael Day on October 12th, 2013

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